Hormonal Imbalances in Women

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Women face a cycle of hormonal changes that revolve around menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. These are natural causes of hormonal imbalances can result in an excess or lack of certain hormones. This is why women may experience hormonal imbalances more frequently than men. Consider, at various stages in her life, a woman will go through a hormonal imbalance. This may be as simple as menstruation where estrogen and progesterone levels are not regulated. This can cause a woman to take birth control medication as a hormone replacement therapy. Hormonal imbalances can also be the onset of a more serious condition or disease. Postpartum depression is a complex mix of physical, emotional, and behavioral changes that happen in a woman after giving birth. Women who have PPD may have an imbalance of hormones, especially estrogen, progesterone, and cortisol.

Hormonal imbalances can occur when there is too much or too little of a hormone in the bloodstream. Because of their essential role in the body, even the smallest hormonal imbalance can cause side effects throughout the body. Hormones are chemicals that are produced by glands in the endocrine system. Hormones travel through the bloodstream to the tissue and organs delivering messages that tell the organs what to do and when to do it. Hormones are important because they are the human body’s chemical messengers. They affect many different processes in the body including growth and development, mood, sexual function, and metabolism. Hormones are also responsible for the onset of many diseases and conditions.

Definition of hormonal imbalances

Headaches. When hormone levels fluctuate, women can experience headaches. Often times, the 4-5 days leading up to the menstrual cycle and during, women will suffer from hormone-related migraines or headaches. Then when the cycle has ended, the headache will be gone. This is a clear sign of a hormone fluctuation and is most often an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone.

Fatigue. This is a feeling of tiredness which is increased and constant. Often times, a woman will push aside the fatigue, thinking it could be stress or too many activities. But it is important to listen to the body and give it proper rest when it is so persistently tired.

Persistent weight gain. When a woman’s hormones are out of balance, she can experience difficulty losing weight. This is because the body is designed to hold onto extra weight, especially around the mid-section, when it feels the hormone levels are not right. The weight gain can be drastic, occurring over a one to two week period, which is also disconcerting for the woman.

Hormone imbalance can also impact a woman’s overall well-being. Some of the most common symptoms of hormonal imbalance in women include:

Importance of hormonal balance in women’s health

An increase in PMS symptoms can often be tracked to hormonal imbalance. Studies have shown that PMS is not caused by too much of a specific hormone, but rather a hormonal sensitivity where small changes in hormone levels can result in big changes in PMS symptoms. Estrogen tends to have an effect on overproduction of aldosterone, a hormone which causes water retention, increases blood pressure, and decreases magnesium. That is something that most women want to stay away from. Too much or too little of thyroid hormone can have a wide effect on a woman’s health, from weight to mood to energy. Progesterone is a hormone that is highly related to the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. With the lack of or absence of this hormone, studies have shown an increase in breast cancer, osteoporosis, and cystic breast disease. Then there is testosterone, a vital hormone for energy and sexual health for women. Studies have shown that the levels of this hormone have drastically decreased in women over the last decade. Associated with this is an increase in the consumption of caffeine and sugar to get through the day, as well as a decrease in personal time and an increase in depression. High insulin is also associated with an increase in testosterone. This may stem from insulin resistance and cause polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). This is only scraping the surface of hormones and the wide effects they can have with even small changes.

Hormones play such a big role in women’s health, and it comes down to the balance of our hormones to make sure they are working for optimal health. With hormones, it is a delicate balance, and with an imbalance, it is enough to take you out of sorts. An imbalance is when you have too much of one hormone, which will make the body produce less of another. This can be caused by many factors. Shifts in hormones can affect mood, weight gain, food cravings, and irregular appetite. All these things can be related to poor mental and emotional health. Hormonal balance is key in the female’s overall health. Any sort of imbalance can have a big effect on energy levels and can increase stress.

Common Causes of Hormonal Imbalances

Age-related hormonal changes

In the Estrogen Dominance or Progesterone Deficiency phase, there is excessive estrogen buildup in the body. This usually occurs prior to or just after a woman’s last menstrual period. Estrogen will not occur independently but needs to be balanced with progesterone. During this time, there is a sort of “sleepy” effort by the ovaries to produce a normal amount of progesterone to balance the amount of estrogen being released from the ovaries and other hormone-producing tissues. This will result in a lack of balancing hormone on progesterone and physicians often observe symptoms related to high estrogen and low progesterone. High estrogen will increase cell growth, including the lining of the uterus, but it also increases the risk of abnormal cell growth. Estrogen unopposed by progesterone also increases the risk of breast and uterine cancers, fibroids, and fibrocystic disease.

During the menstrual cycle, the body may not produce enough estrogen during the phase of ovulation before menstruation. This estrogen level insufficiency will lead to low testosterone because estrogen is required to break down and activate testosterone. This has an effect on higher levels of LH and FSH which try to stimulate the ovaries and result in increased production of estrogen and testosterone. Consequently, this process ends up disturbing hormone regulation and produces a very irregular hormonal imbalance state.

Stress and its impact on hormones

Stress is a well-documented trigger of hormonal imbalances. While the effects of stress on the body are still being explored, it is known that stress leads to an overall hormonal imbalance. This may be due to the fact that cortisol, the primary hormone released during stress, needs to be balanced by adequate levels of thyroxine. Lowered thyroxine, which is the hormone produced by the thyroid, means that there is a hormonal imbalance since thyroxine affects the production and utilization of estrogen and progesterone. Cortisol also suppresses estrogen, and higher levels of cortisol are thought to be linked to lower levels of estrogen in pre-menopausal women. Stress has an effect on hormone levels in the menstrual cycle which can cause premenstrual syndrome, or exacerbate its symptoms. This is due to the hormonal fluctuations that occur during the menstrual cycle. Cortisol has been shown to affect the intensity of these fluctuations in hormone levels. Finally, one of the long-term effects of stress can be the onset of early menopause. Women who are under a lot of stress often stop menstruating, and while amenorrhea can be due to very low body weight, it is thought that the amenorrhea due to stress is caused by anovulatory cycles (when the ovaries do not release an egg). Usually, this is a temporary state, but over time it can lead to early menopause as the ovulation function of the ovaries is lost. In modern society, it is virtually impossible to avoid stress. However, one can look after their general health and well-being so that they are more resilient to stress, and ensure that they have the rest and relaxation needed to regenerate from the effects of stress. As well as ensuring that one’s diet and exercise habits are not adding to the stress on the body, it is possible to avoid stress-provoking situations and even change one’s perception in order to make them less stressful. Time management and relaxation techniques are excellent means of reducing stress at a manageable and sustainable level.

Poor diet and its effect on hormonal balance

Low carbohydrate diets have been found to improve insulin sensitivity as well as reducing androgens and insulin levels for many women. In fact, a study conducted by the University of North Carolina found that even a modest reduction in weight for obese women with PCOS can restore menstrual regularity and ovulation.

For women, a constant intake of carbohydrates stimulates insulin secretion, which with time can cause insulin resistance. High insulin levels can have many damaging effects on the body. It increases production of testosterone by the ovaries and the adrenal glands, and it inhibits SHBG production, which results in an increase of free testosterone. Insulin also inhibits the production of sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) by the liver and is also a key contributor to weight gain. Excessive weight gain can lead to obesity, another factor that can increase the risk of insulin resistance, diabetes, and hormonal imbalances.

Poor diet and its effect on hormonal balance. Hormones are produced from the nutrients and the food we consume, thus it is important to know which foods can cause havoc and which ones can be beneficial in optimizing hormonal health. The most common hormonal disorder in both women and men is type 2 diabetes, which is usually a result of an unhealthy diet and carries a serious risk of developing other hormonal disorders such as thyroid and adrenal issues.

Symptoms of Hormonal Imbalances

The changes in hormones cause irregular periods and spotting. There are some women who get heavy bleeding during their period, while others might have a light flow or even miss their periods. Periods are considered to be irregular if the number of days between cycles is different each month. This might be due to hormonal imbalances, including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Hormonal balance is the key to managing the menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle and menopause are two of the most common reasons when hormone levels in women can fluctuate and cause hormonal imbalance. Women can also experience pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), which is a result of the hormonal changes, particularly an increase in estrogen and progesterone (both are used to prepare the uterus for pregnancy), and a relative decrease in testosterone. This would cause mood swings, anxiety, and irritability. High estrogen levels can also cause insulin resistance. This is a condition where the cells don’t respond to the normal action of insulin in the body; this would then lead to high blood sugar levels and the risk of getting type 2 diabetes.

Irregular menstrual cycles

A less common but more serious cause of irregular menstrual cycles is the overproduction of male hormones, or androgens, from the adrenal glands or the ovaries. Androgens are responsible for male secondary sex characteristics and can cause a cessation of ovulation and menstruation, a condition known as anovulatory periods. If women are not ovulating, they cannot conceive, and this can be very frustrating for a woman trying to become pregnant. Anovulatory periods can often result in a prolonged build-up of the endometrial lining, which can eventually cause endometrial hyperplasia or lead to endometrial cancer. This can be detected by a prolonged heavy period, a period occurring more often than once every 3 weeks, or a period that lasts more than 7 days.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is often caused by imbalances in estrogen and progesterone and can be evidenced by mood swings, depression, sweet or salty food cravings, and bloating. A severe form of PMS known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is thought to affect about 5% of women of childbearing age and is a cyclic and severe form of irritability, depression, or tension, often leading to disabling symptoms and possible disruption of normal activities.

Irregular menstrual cycles are a common problem that plagues women suffering from hormonal imbalances. The menstrual cycle is orchestrated by the subtle rise and fall of hormones, and any disruption can cause a missed period, a period that is either shorter or lighter than normal, or a period that is longer or heavier than normal. Hormonal imbalances can often lead to an overproduction of estrogen, causing a thickening of the endometrial lining and a heavier than normal period. This condition is known as dysmenorrhea and can often lead to infertility or the possibility of a hysterectomy if not treated properly. On the other hand, if there is too much progesterone, the endometrial lining becomes too thick, causing irregular bleeding and often leading to a hysterectomy.

Mood swings and emotional instability

Low estrogen levels are associated with low mood and anxiety, which are characteristic symptoms of PMS and depression. Progesterone has a calming effect and an anxiolytic action on the brain, so low levels of this hormone can lead to mood changes and anxiety. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep and relaxation. It is increased by progesterone, so low progesterone levels can also result in poor sleep and anxiety. These negative mood symptoms can severely affect the quality of life and relationships of the sufferer.

One of the reasons for this emotional instability is the changes in estrogen and progesterone levels. Estrogen has a big effect on the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, emotions, sleep, and pain perception. High levels of estrogen associated with PMS, PMDD, pregnancy, and the use of oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy can lead to an increase in mood and emotional disturbances typically the week before the menstrual cycle and during the actual menstrual bleeding.

Mood swings and emotional instability are a very common symptom of hormonal imbalance. It makes you feel as if you are on an emotional roller coaster. You may feel on edge one minute and relaxed the next, in tears and irritable for no apparent reason. You may also feel more emotionally sensitive than usual, with the emotions being more intense. There may be feelings of chronic stress, anxiety, and depression.

Weight gain or difficulty losing weight

Fat around the abdomen, and the inability to shift it, is a typical sign of a hormone imbalance. Excess estrogen stored in fat cells is the main reason for this. And this is because the body will accumulate fat around the hip area, as it is the safest place to store it without it interfering with the essential organs. Estrogen imbalances can also be caused by exposure to xenoestrogens which are chemicals that mimic estrogen. They are often referred to as endocrine disruptors because they interfere with the hormone balance and some of them have been linked to causing cancer. Xenoestrogens are found in many everyday chemicals such as plastic and metal food cans, and the best way to avoid them is by keeping away from such products as much as you can, and by buying organic foods.

Weight gain and difficulty losing weight, despite maintaining a level of exercise and dieting, is a very common sign of a hormone imbalance. For many people, losing weight involves such a large amount of work involving various different methods and techniques. A hormone imbalance could be what is stopping you from losing the weight. High insulin levels and insulin resistance are linked with weight gain. One way to restore insulin levels to a healthy level is by losing weight, and implementing a diet with a low GI. Another way to balance insulin levels is by reducing stress, and making sure you get enough sleep. Blood sugar levels which swing up and down can cause irritability, anxiety and fatigue. This is more commonly known as a sugar crash. In the long run, it will lead to a larger appetite, and increased weight. Eating lots of sugary foods will also impair the immune system, and cause adrenal dysfunction. The adrenal glands help to regulate blood sugar and burn fat.

Fatigue and low energy levels

Poor and interrupted sleep or sleep disorders can be a major contributing factor to fatigue. There are natural remedies to help improve sleep quality and energy level. Establish a regular sleep pattern by going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning, even on the weekends. This is the most important thing that you can do to create healthy sleep patterns. A traditional remedy for sleep is drinking a glass of warm, hormone-rBST and antibiotic-free milk with a 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg before bed. Soy milk is not a good substitute. If you do not see an improvement in sleep quality after a month, discontinue the nutmeg. High sources of the amino acid tryptophan such as free-range turkey or cottage cheese, eaten in combination with complex carbohydrates, may help promote sleep.

The adrenal glands produce hormones that help the body maintain balanced blood sugar levels and provide energy to the cells. Fatigue or chronic fatigue is a constant feeling of tiredness, weakness, or lack of energy. This symptom can be debilitating for some women and can get in the way of their daily activities. Eliminating afternoon coffee or sugar cravings, sleeping 7-9 hours a night, including the hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., can be very helpful. Using non-stimulating relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and healing activities like reading or nature walks in the late afternoon or evening can be very helpful.

Treatment and Management of Hormonal Imbalances

The treatment and management of hormonal imbalances depend on what is causing the problem. If the ovaries are the cause, they may be surgically removed or reduced in function with medication. Often, the entire reproductive system is removed which causes instant menopause. If a hormonal imbalance is caused by medication, the physician can recommend a change in medication or a change in the dosage. A short-term hormonal imbalance caused by a stressful situation usually resolves itself when the stressful situation ends. For hormonal imbalances caused by lifestyle or medical conditions, the underlying cause must first be treated or brought under control. This can be a complex process but can often be accomplished with the careful use of medications to either raise or reduce hormone levels. If the high or low hormone levels are not causing serious problems, treatment may be worse than the disease so is often not recommended. In certain cases, such as hormone-dependent cancer, the benefits of removing the source of hormones. High levels of steroids can suppress the function of the adrenal glands, reducing production of both the steroids and adrenaline, which can cause a chronic condition. This is particularly serious if it occurs in children and should be avoided if at all possible.

Lifestyle changes for hormonal balance

– Reduce the amount of saturated fat and hydrogenated fat (e.g., margarine, processed food) in the diet, as these fats will increase the risk of estrogen excess and also tamper with essential fatty acid metabolism. – Increase fiber intake, aiming for a minimum of 6 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily, and 2 servings of whole grains. This will improve estrogen clearance from the body, as well as binding and promoting the removal of old estrogen. Legumes are also important in estrogen clearance, and women with symptoms of estrogen excess should aim to eat a serving of soy products daily. This being said, it would be best to avoid soy products if there are symptoms of estrogen deficiency. Onions and garlic contain nutrients that help to support liver function in the detoxification of estrogen, so they should be used liberally in food preparation. High fiber diets will also help to stabilize blood sugar and reduce the risk of insulin resistance, a common problem in women with PCOS.

Hormone replacement therapy options

There are various options in hormone replacement therapy such as skin patches, gels, tablets, and an estrogen-releasing intrauterine system. The type of hormone replacement therapy recommended will depend on the severity of the symptoms. Tablets can be an effective means of treatment and can be tapered off to find the minimum dose that is effective. Skin patches are usually estrogen only and are to be changed twice a week. They can cause skin irritation but can effectively control symptoms. Estrogen gels are often rubbed into the skin once a day, preferably in the morning, and can be tapered off to find the lowest dose that is effective. This can be an effective form of treatment; in some cases, it may be a cause of breast tenderness and a change in dose may be required. Estrogen can also be administered via an intradermal implant that is inserted under local anesthesia, which can provide effective treatment for up to 6 months. It is particularly useful for women who suffer from arthritic pain and bed-bound patients. The estrogen-releasing intrauterine system is a form of hormone replacement therapy that can be effective treatment for the localized vaginal symptoms of genital urinary atrophy. This is particularly beneficial for patients who have experienced prior HRT for the treatment of postmenopausal symptoms and have suffered a relapse of menopausal symptoms when the therapy has been ceased.

Natural remedies and supplements for hormonal balance

Chaste berry, another supplement, is known to correct hormone imbalances of the body’s menstrual cycle. It has been shown to help PMS symptoms including breast tenderness, water retention, irritability, and depression. Chaste berry acts on the pituitary gland, also reducing the release of prolactin. This then helps to rebalance the ratio of estrogen to progesterone by raising the level of progesterone – a common hormonal problem in women of all ages. Symptoms are usually relieved within a few months, although it may take up to a year to regain full hormone balance.

Supplements can be extremely effective in relieving hormonal imbalances. A notable example is evening primrose oil, which is high in essential fatty acids and is known to reduce PMS symptoms. The fatty acids found in this and other oils are precursors to hormone-like substances which have an effect on inflammation and blood clotting. These acids are thought to be effective in reducing a woman’s sensitivity to prolactin and to reduce breast pain. This oil is available in capsule form and should be taken daily, two weeks prior to menstruation.

Diet and herbal supplements, as well as alternative medicine such as acupuncture, may all be tried in an effort to relieve the symptoms of hormonal imbalances. Although effective, the results of these treatments may not be the same for every woman. It is important to know the potential risks and benefits of the following treatments and to consult a healthcare professional before trying new or alternative treatments for hormonal imbalance.